GM steps back on new return-to-office policy after backlash from salaried workers

General Motors is stepping back a bit on a return-to-work policy it revealed to salaried employees last week.

On Tuesday, CEO Mary Barra sent out a note to the salaried workforce offering an apology of sorts for the timing of putting out a new policy late in the day Friday saying that employees would have to return to working in the office three days a week.

She said now that GM's plan still will include a more regular, in-person presence, but it will not implement any changes to its return-to-the-office policy this year as the company continues to listen to employee feedback. The plan still will ask employees to work in-office three days each week.

"The initial letter was a notification and the purpose of the update is to provide clarification and additional details," GM spokeswoman Maria Raynal said Tuesday. "The timing has shifted slightly, however, the overall plan has not changed."

A nearly empty hallway at the Renaissance Center on June 15, 2022. The pandemic sent most of the 5,000 people who worked at GM's headquarters home to work, and few have returned. The pandemic sent most of the 5,000 people who worked at GM's Renaissance Center offices home to work, and few have returned.
A nearly empty hallway at the Renaissance Center on June 15, 2022. The pandemic sent most of the 5,000 people who worked at GM's headquarters home to work, and few have returned. The pandemic sent most of the 5,000 people who worked at GM's Renaissance Center offices home to work, and few have returned.

In Tuesday's note sent to employees, which was obtained by the Free Press, Barra wrote: "We want to take the opportunity to address some of the questions, concerns, and misconceptions that we've heard. We acknowledge that the timing of the message, late on a Friday afternoon, was unfortunate. It was also unintentional."

GM will communicate more information on its plan next month, Barra said.

GM faced immediate resistance from some salaried employees over the new mandate it put forth late Friday. GM had initially said that policy would start later this year. Some GM employees told the Free Press the news blindsided them.

"You can probably imagine what the general mood is," one GM salaried employee said after the news. This worker asked to not be named for fear of retaliation for speaking to the news media. "The company has been talking a good game about Work Appropriately since this all began, and we were completely blindsided by this news."

For the past 24 months, many salaried employees either worked totally remote during the COVID-19 pandemic or worked a hybrid-type model called Work Appropriately, which was introduced after the pandemic subsided. It allowed flexibility between working at the office and working remotely, letting employees and their manager decide where they could best do their specific jobs.

Collaborate with employees

In Tuesday's note to the white-collar workforce, Barra wrote: "Our plan was always, and still is, to collaboratively design the solution that best balances the needs of the enterprise with the needs of each of you. The solution will include a more regular, in-person presence. However, determining how, when, and where teams will increase their in-person collaboration ultimately will be designed by the people leaders who know their organization best. We do not plan to mandate which days of the week will be collaborative days. In no scenario will our Work Appropriately evolution begin before Q1 2023."

Barra said GM was providing the clarification "based on dialogue that took place since Friday" and GM intends to spend the next few weeks listening to employee feedback and incorporate it into the company plan. GM acknowledged on Monday that some employees had concerns about the mandated three-day return-to-office plan, though some of the feedback from employees indicated there are those who are eager to return to in-person collaboration, GM's Raynal said.

"We understand our employees have concerns, and are committed to maintaining flexibility to ensure they can attend to personal commitments," Raynal said Monday. "As we implement this change, we are listening to employee feedback and will incorporate it into our planning. We will continue to share details with employees as the plans solidify in the coming weeks."

GM's reasoning

Last week, GM laid out its logic for the move in a note Barra sent to the white-collar workforce and which the Free Press obtained.

It read: "Over time, we have lost some of the important, intangible benefits of regularly working together in-person including, casual mentoring, more efficient communication and bringing an enterprise mindset to our work. We are entering a rapid launch cycle that, quite frankly, will define our future trajectory, and we need to drive change with speed — individually and collectively — so we can achieve our goals."

Barra's note explained that when GM introduced Work Appropriately in April 2021, "we took great care not to call it a policy, but rather a philosophy" to balance the needs of the company and to give employees flexibility.

Barra told the Free Press in May that there were days she often worked from her home or other remote locations.

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In her note to employees on Friday, Barra wrote that the COVID-19 pandemic has improved dramatically allowing for a safe return to the office and GM's push to transform the company requires more in-person collaboration.

General Motors Chair and CEO Mary Barra listens to researcher Hernando Gonzalez speak about what he does while working in the materials lab at the Research and Development building of the GM Global Technical Center campus in Warren on May 3, 2022.
General Motors Chair and CEO Mary Barra listens to researcher Hernando Gonzalez speak about what he does while working in the materials lab at the Research and Development building of the GM Global Technical Center campus in Warren on May 3, 2022.

For some who posted on online message boards, the change was a betrayal of how GM positioned Work Appropriately as the new cultural shift for the company post-pandemic. Leaders said it would be a talent recruitment tool allowing GM to hire the best by not requiring them to move to Michigan.

"What about that awesome software person who lives in Bismarck, North Dakota?" said Jeff Massimilla, GM's executive director of connected customer and mobility solutions, in a 2021 interview with the Free Press. "We could allow them to stay there."

The automaker hired some 10,000 people globally in 2021 and 7,000 people this year, with many working remotely.

The first to leave

On Monday, some online message boards were lighting up with chatter about GM's three-day in-office mandate with some people calling the move short-sighted in terms of talent attraction and retention. Others said it's the right thing to do. Few of the commentators put their names out there.

A General Motors office is seen on the 36th floor of the 300 Tower at the Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit on Thursday, March 11, 2021.
A General Motors office is seen on the 36th floor of the 300 Tower at the Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit on Thursday, March 11, 2021.

Business experts say whatever GM decides, others will watch how it turns out.

"If it's a disaster, they won't make the same mistake," said Erik Gordon, a professor in the Ross School of Business at University of Michigan "If it works, they will feel more confident about following GM's lead."

But resistance is to be expected Gordon said. He noted that pre-pandemic, most people would have loved getting to work from home two days a week.

"But after staying home every day, they don’t want to go in even one day," Gordon said. "If you give employees a benefit, no matter how clearly you say it’s temporary, they resent you if you take it away."

'Not a lot of sympathy'

Returning salaried workers to the office will create equity across GM's workforce, said Marick Masters, a business professor at Wayne State University.

Being in the office reinforces allegiance to the company and collaboration makes their "creative juices flow," Masters said.

"You can get a sense of what’s working and what’s not working and make adjustments," Masters said. "I think most people will realize this is something that they have to do and it’s more a sense of equity because you have blue-collar workers who have to show up every day."

A 2020 Chevrolet Silverado HD in dynamic vehicle testing on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019 at General Motors Flint Assembly in Flint, Michigan.
A 2020 Chevrolet Silverado HD in dynamic vehicle testing on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019 at General Motors Flint Assembly in Flint, Michigan.

Some of GM's workers on the factory floor echo that sentiment. They characterize a return to office as "putting COVID behind us," said Eric Welter, UAW Local 598 shop chairman at GM's Flint Assembly plant where GM makes its Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra heavy-duty pickups.

"We always worked for the whole thing," Welter told the Free Press, referring to hourly workers returning to the line after an eight-week shutdown during the peak of the pandemic in 2020. "This might feel like justice. There's not a lot of sympathy for them and I don't know how you run a company from home?"

'Great thing for the city'

There are others outside of GM affected by GM bringing workers back to the offices on a more regular schedule.

The massive Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit had became somewhat of a ghost town when COVID-19 sent workers packing. Among them: roughly 5,000 GM employees. In June, it was questioned what was going to happen to the RenCen because of how empty it became. GM owns part of the RenCen towers.

"This move represents a lot more office workers patronizing our shops and restaurants to help us get closer to pre-pandemic activity," said John Roach, director of media relations for the city of Detroit and Mayor Mike Duggan's office. "Not only will this add vibrancy to our central business district, it will generate more revenue for city services."

Warren Mayor Jim Fouts told the Free Press on Monday he supports a return. "We have a lot of businesses and merchants in Warren and it's a shot in the arm to them. GM employs close to 25,000 people there and has invested $1.5 billion in the Tech Center recently. These are all new buildings and facilities and you can't justify building those without employees there."

Main Street might care, but Wall Street isn't much interested where GM's workforce does its job, "unless it results in mass exodus, especially among the most senior executives," said David Whiston, auto analyst at Morningstar.

And given that GM said in May it was suspending hiring more people this year, Whiston said, "if they are not looking to add a lot of people now due to the economy, then there’s one less drawback to the policy change."

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Free Press staff writer JC Reindl contributed to this report.

Contact Jamie L. LaReau: jlareau@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @jlareauan. Read more on General Motors and sign up for our autos newsletterBecome a subscriber.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: GM steps back on return-to-office after employees 'blindsided'